Barbara Robinson, 77, is approaching 100 books that she has read over the past three years. She keeps a book journal on her computer, pursues topics that pique her interest and admits to periods of single-minded focus. For example, when she began learning about Moses and the Exodus in Sunday school, she could not get enough of ancient history. She has binged on information about World War II and the Holocaust, reading the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, All the Light We Cannot See. She became fascinated with North Korea, focusing on several titles, including Nothing to Envy and Ordinary Lives in North Korea, and enjoys reading about American presidents. She prefers to download books to her Kindle or her iPad. “My eyes don’t get as tired,” she explains.
Her mind does not get tired either. Just the opposite happens the more Barbara reads. She gets charged to share the information with others. “I think reading helps keep my mind sharp. I think I remember more now than I did when I was in school. I can recall details better.”
With so much media attention devoted to memory issues, seniors like Barbara are motivated to do anything and everything to stave off dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association reported this year that one in nine people age 65 and older suffer from some form of the disease. Barbara lives alone since her husband died 12 years ago, but her daughter and four grandchildren live next door. She is very involved at her church and wants to stay healthy and cognizant for as long as possible so that she will not be a burden. Working puzzles, quilting and socializing are other ways she stimulates her brain.
Donald E. Schmechel, MD, of the Southeastern Neurology and Memory Clinic at Lexington Medical Center, pointed out in his 2013 podcast entitled A Talk to Remember: Understanding the Symptoms of Memory Loss that diet, exercise, spirit and purpose were the key issues on which to concentrate regarding memory loss. A memory-friendly diet, for example, includes berries, leafy greens and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Gary Small, M.D., author of 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain, points out that exercise results in a heart that pumps oxygen and nutrients to brain cells and a body that produces chemicals that stimulate brain cells.
Barbara’s neighbor and friend, Jerry D. Pate, 73, has been exercising purposely since age 12, but also says broadening the mind — taking courses, researching and writing — is essential. “I feel that it’s important to stay active in my mind and in my body as I age,” he explains. Jerry wants to go to a dude ranch out West soon, so he is brushing up on his horseback riding skills at Smith Farms in Blythewood. This former broadcaster, public administrator and public policy lobbyist sets daily goals and works to achieve them. He sits on boards, sings with a choral group and mentors at Hand Middle School.
Jerry lives by the adage “If you don’t use it, you lose it” and has no desire to sit still. Growing up in Cheraw gave him a bank full of fascinating tales. He writes them and has had some published. One story he’s working on is a fictional account of a family of cotton mill workers based upon his research of the industry. He writes about children having to replace deceased parents as laborers in the mills in order to stay in a rent-free home, or about a relative who played for the mill’s baseball team as a pitcher. Although his parents were grocers and merchants and he has never been inside a mill, his research sparked a keen interest in textile manufacturing and the people who made it possible.
“Textile manufacturing just fascinates me,” says Jerry. “It’s complex and complicated … and what those people had to face every day at that time is so interesting. It is a wonderful journey and really stretches the mind to research in the libraries here.”
Billie Lou Liles, 74, says reading is her great blessing but points out that working is what truly keeps her strong in mind and body. She works part time at Uptown on Main in merchandising, staging and gift baskets. Her husband died four years ago, and she admittedly has no resume-worthy skills except that she can tie a great bow. She attended college for three years, focusing on home economics, but just wanted to be a wife and a mother. Uptown on Main hired her because of her natural skill at arranging gift baskets. “I don’t want to give it up until I keel over,” she quips. “I have something to offer, and I’m still useful. That means a lot. I meet new people and work with the greatest young people … many of whom are college students. They keep me trendy and young at heart. I couldn’t be happier.”
Other than while she is reading, Billie Lou is rarely stagnant. She makes lists and with great satisfaction marks items off her list when they are accomplished; she does a Bible study with women; she makes and takes food through a church ministry to groups such as local firemen; she has been on a mission trip; she plays solitaire often; she’s on Facebook; and does number quizzes, writes, texts what she describes as “long epistles to my daughter and granddaughters,” and pens notes to those in need. Currently, she is re-reading Pride and Prejudice.
The Mayo Clinic’s education on combating memory loss lines up with Dr. Schmechel’s teachings. A lively, motivated spirit to stay interested and in touch with the world is key. Barbara, Billy Lou and Jerry all stay abreast of current affairs by reading the news. They are also active and intentional with their time. During down times, the Mayo Clinic suggests seniors not only tackle table or crossword puzzles but also play some of the current computer and phone app games available. Some popular ones are Luminosity, Words with Friends™, CogniFit Brain Training, Mind Sparke Brain Fitness Pro, Happify™ and Eidetic. The point is to keep the mind stimulated — to work out the mind by feeding it with new and interesting details and challenges.
Bert Hammond says Del, his wife, began experiencing symptoms of memory loss a few years ago after an episode of dehydration. The two have been married for 58 years; she is 80 and he is 79. They have maintained a high level of fitness for 30 years, working out together at the Lexington County Leisure Center. When her memory began suffering slightly, she began to do puzzles and word games more often as well. “She likes to play FreeCell on the Internet,” Bert says. He says he feels as though the physical activity and the games have maintained her mind and body strength.
Lack of quality sleep can also lead to fuzzy headedness, according to Dr. Schmechel and others. This past year he was a guest speaker at Lexington Health Solutions and discussed the connection between sleep and memory. According to an Aug. 17 article on MarthaStewart.com titled Give Your Brain a Boost, a lack of sleep can result in a lack of neurons — which are responsible for sending signals through the brain. A Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School study in 2014, cited in the article, found that eight to nine hours of sleep leads to clear thinking.
And, as Dr. Schmechel expressed in his podcast, a person’s spirit is a key component. Ann Belding may appear to be a petite, delicate 69-year-old, but looks are deceptive. Ann has enthusiastically accompanied her husband, a local orthopedist, to Haiti up to six times annually for the past few years to assist where needed at Hospital Lumiere in Bonne Fin. They both feel Jesus Christ has given them the opportunity to show His love as they work with Haitians who come there with medical needs.
Using the Creole she has learned since she first visited Haiti with her husband 15 years ago, Ann screens patients, organizes charts, readies injections, provides physical therapy instructions and visits with patients in the hospital. “Haitians are incredibly patient and grateful people,” she says. “The travel, cultural experience, adaptation –– having to communicate in another language –– and just being stretched way out of my comfort zone has been a benefit in keeping me mentally and physically challenged. This has been helpful as I’ve gotten older because I notice that I’m naturally inclined to be less aggressive in pursuing things that I know I need to do to stay fit.”
Ann previously ran and swam regularly, but two broken bones forced her to limit exercise to walking her dog and working out at a gym, which she joined at age 67. “I’ve seen great improvement … I joined to regain muscle loss and bone strength,” she explains.
As a form of mental self-discipline, Ann works crossword puzzles, reads both fiction and non-fiction, and periodically meets with international women at local universities who seek English conversation partners. She will also sometimes participate in a weekly English as a Second Language (ESL) class as a small group leader.
Primarily, though, Ann points to staying fit spiritually as the most important indicator of her health during this aging season. She says, “I begin the day with God and His Word. He provides the motivation for maintaining fitness in every other area of life.”